Relevant Differences

There is a concept in philosophy called relevant difference.  Basically, this means that a principle must hold across cases unless there is a relevant difference between the cases.  So, if you believe that boys and girls should be treated equally, but you make your son do outdoor chores (mowing the lawn, raking leaves, shoveling snow) and your daughter do indoor chores (doing laundry, washing dishes, vacuuming), you are doing something wrong.  Either you do not believe that boys and girls should be treated equally or you don’t know what it means to treat them equally.  The only way out of this is to find a relevant difference between boys and girls that would justify the difference in treatment.  Perhaps you live on a steep hill and your daughter lacks the physical strength to push the lawnmower.  If there is no such relevant difference, you should start having your son and daughter both do all of the indoor and outdoor chores.

I bring this up because of the current spat between Apple and the FBI.  In case you haven’t heard, the FBI recovered an iPhone that belonged to the San Bernardino shooter.  The FBI wants access to the phone as part of their investigation.  They went to a judge and got a warrant.  They want Apple’s help, but Apple is refusing.  This is where relevant difference comes in.  The whole technology industry is acting like the FBI is doing something wrong, but I can’t see a relevant difference between this and any other search warrant the FBI uses.  If law enforcement has probable cause, they can get a warrant to search a person’s home, car, office, computer, financial records, credit reports, bank accounts and even a person’s body.  There is a process in place to protect the innocent.  Law enforcement needs to prove to a judge that there is good reason to believe that the search is necessary and that the search will yield important information.  So, what I want to know is why does Apple think that iPhones are different than homes, cars, bank accounts or peoples’ bodies.  They don’t seem to be more private or more sensitive or less likely to yield important information.  I suppose that Apple may believe that all government investigations are wrong.  Then they wouldn’t need a relevant difference.  They could just be using this instance to make a general point.  I find that hard to believe, though.  Maybe someone should do some corporate espionage* using an Android and see if Apple sticks to their principles when the FBI tries to get a warrant to search that phone.

*This is, of course, a joke.  I am not encouraging anyone to do anything illegal, even if Apple would defend me when I tried to hide the evidence on my iPad.



You Did Bad

Dear Boston Marathon Bombing Trial Jury,

Can I call you BMBTJ?  Thanks.  You screwed up.  You had a chance to do something good, but instead you did something bad.  I understand your feelings.  I’m just disappointed that your base feelings won out over reason and goodness.

I know that Tsarnaev and the government put you in a bad position.  I don’t envy you.  I’m quite sure that I would have felt revulsion, fear, anger and hatred had I been forced to sit through that testimony and look at that evidence.  I feel some level of that just having seen it through the sanitizing news lens.  But, BMBTJ, the question itself was rather simple, life in prison or death.  I’m not one for universal rules, but if you have a legitimate choice, death is the wrong one.

What good will Tsarnaev’s death do?  It won’t bring back the dead and it won’t heal the injured.  It isn’t just.  It won’t bring closure even though that’s one of the ways people justify it.  All it will do is satisfy our feelings of revulsion, fear, anger and hatred.  Those are bad feelings and we shouldn’t be looking to satisfy them.

This decision failed to show mercy.  It failed to show compassion.  Those are good things and failure to do good is bad.  It also adds to the perception that America is backwards and barbaric.  That makes the world a more dangerous place.

So, BMBTJ, I just wanted to let you know how I felt.  I hope you understand.  I don’t think you are bad people.  I just think you did a bad thing.


The Death Penalty

The death penalty has been in the news a lot lately.  I read recently that Oklahoma has approved nitrogen gas as a way to kill people.  The Boston Marathon bombing trial is in its sentencing phase.  There have also been several high profile executions gone wrong.  And, of course, The Supreme Court just heard oral arguments on a capital punishment case.  It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that we even still have capital punishment.  And it’s even harder to believe that it is relatively uncontroversial.  That’s not to say that there isn’t a debate, there is.  I’m just saying that inmates are killed with great frequency and it doesn’t generate nearly the kind of angst that gay marriage, abortion and missing emails generate.

Most of the arguments about the death penalty are well worn.  People that are for capital punishment say that it is a deterrent, even though it isn’t.  They also say that it is justice, which, again, it isn’t.  Sometimes they’ll even say that it is for safety, that certain people are too dangerous to be kept alive.  That one is usually reserved for deposed dictators, but it is there all the same.  People that are against the death penalty point out that it is far more expensive to execute someone than to keep them in prison for life.  Going along with that one, they point out that death penalty cases take up a lot of the court system’s time when there are other things they could be dealing with.  And, they also point out that mistakes are made and innocent people are put to death.

The anti-death penalty group is right in all of their arguments while the pro-death penalty group is wrong in all of theirs.  So, this seems like a slam dunk.  Let’s just get rid of the death penalty.  I support the idea of getting rid of the death penalty, but I don’t like the arguments.  On both sides, they are too oriented towards the practical.  It seems like if we could find definitive proof of someone’s guilt and if we could kill that person cheaply, we should go ahead and do it.  That doesn’t sit well with me.

It’s a little strange to say, but I like the religious objections better.  The Catholic church* and Quakers are famously anti-death penalty.  Essentially they say that killing is a sin (one of the ten commandments), so we shouldn’t do it.  That’s better since the law shouldn’t hinge on particular cases, and it is universal, but I don’t like a faith based argument.  What reason does a non-Catholic and a non-Quaker have to agree?

When I think about the death penalty, the first thing I think of is John Locke.  He was a huge influence on the founding fathers and a lot of our government is reminiscent of his ideas.  One of the things that he talked about is the “state of war.”  This isn’t war in the sense of two governments fighting with soldiers.  This is a case where one person tries to take control of another person.  When that happens, they are no longer fellow citizens of the state of nature, they have entered a state of war.  When in a state of war, the victim can use any means necessary to stop the aggressor, including killing the aggressor.  However, the state of war is short lived.  Once the aggressor has been subdued or surrenders, it is over.  Then, it becomes a question of reparation, and killing the aggressor won’t repair anything.  Locke also said that one of the main reasons we enter into society is so that we, as private individuals, no longer have to worry about states of war.  The State will be the one with that power.  Naturally there are times when a person is being attacked and the police are not around, so killing in self defense is still a rare option, but once the State intervenes, there can be no state of war.  The aggressor is subdued, so killing the aggressor does nothing.

As for why the state shouldn’t kill the criminal after a fair trial, I look to Plato.  In The Republic, one of the early guesses as to the nature of justice is that justice is helping your friends and harming your enemies.  Socrates, however, points out that justice is supposed to be a good and asks if a good can ever make someone worse.  They decide that it doesn’t make sense for a good like justice to make someone worse, so harming one’s enemies cannot be part of justice.  On this view, punishment can only be rehabilitative (I thought I was making up a word there, but the spell checker said nothing).  Putting someone to death cannot rehabilitate.  Therefore, the state, acting in the name of justice, shouldn’t use the death penalty.

When you put those two views together, you get the state having a monopoly on the use of force and only an unjust state uses that force to kill convicts.  It seems pretty clear to me.  I’d rather live in a just state.  So, we should stop capital punishment.  All of the pragmatic concerns are just icing.  I want to hear some real angst the next time someone is put to death.  Then, maybe our state will stop doing it.

* It’s funny they way liberals ignore how progressive the Catholics are in many areas.  I know they are wrong about LGBT issues and birth control.  I disagree with their position on abortion, but I understand it.  But, when it comes to the death penalty, climate change, homelessness, hunger, evolution and a host of other issues, they lean way left.

Logic 101 – Politics

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these Logic 101 posts.  Just as a refresher, I like to look at a topic from the point of view of logic 101.  That is, I try to see where the basic errors in reasoning occur.  My theory is that if everyone took an intro to logic course, these arguments would be more productive and far less annoying.  I could write something longer than the Mahabharata, Ramayana and War & Peace combined when it comes to the errors in reasoning you’ll find in politics.  Some of the obvious ones are ad hominems, slippery slopes, appeals to tradition, appeals to authority, the naturalistic fallacy, appeals to nature, and straw men.  Oh, and hasty generalizations, the genetic fallacy and begging the question.  Like I said, I could write a very, very, very long book on the topic.  So, today I’ll just focus on one that I find particularly troubling, the false dilemma. A false dilemma is when an argument is presented as if it only has two possible solutions when, in fact, it has at least three.  There are two basic causes of a false dilemma.  One is honest, where the speaker simply cannot see the other possibilities.  The other is a dishonest rhetorical device where the speaker wants to strengthen one position by juxtaposing it against a silly or abhorrent position.

The false dilemma is, I think, a big part of the reason that so many people feel like there is no place for them in politics.  The abortion debate is a perfect example.  The way things are presented, you are either pro life or pro choice.  If you are pro life, you believe that life begins at conception and it is wrong to kill, therefore it is wrong to have an abortion.  If you are pro choice, you believe that a woman is free to do with her own person as she sees fit.  The problem is that many, if not most, people don’t fit happily into either of those descriptions.  It is entirely possible to believe that life starts at conception and still be pro choice.  A standard utilitarian approach does not fall into either camp.  A strict utilitarian calculus would show that some women who want an abortion should not get one, but other women would be justified.  And it might even show that some people who want to have the baby should have an abortion.  My point here is not to settle the issue.  But, until we start having realistic discussions that address the possibility that there are more than two positions, we will never make any progress.

Foreign relations is another area where the false dilemma is constantly used.  The only possibilities presented in any conflict are with us or against us.  It creates all kinds of problems when the whole world is divided into allies and enemies.  It forces us to care about things that have nothing to do with us and that can lead to unnecessary and illegal interventions.  It can makes us support horrible leaders like Netanyahu just because Israel is an ally and Iran is an enemy.   Realistically, other countries must do some things without even considering the US.  We should let those countries be neutral.  We should also understand that even friends can do bad things, like Israel’s illegal expansion, and adversaries can do nice things, like the Russians providing shuttle service to space for American astronauts.  I’d like to think that the state department realizes that it is not a black and white world, but until the electorate is clued in, how can they make informed decisions?

Surprisingly, I don’t really blame the politicians for the rampant use of false dilemmas.  Of course, I would prefer that they be up front and honest, but even though it is an informal fallacy, the false dilemma is a powerful rhetorical tool.  Given how cutthroat politics is, it is only natural that the politicians use it.  I put the blame on the press.  When you get right down to it, there is no profession as consistently bad at its job as the news media.  One of the key parts of the media’s job is to report the lies and misinformation that politicians spew.  This should include false dilemmas.  Progress is impossible when only two of many possibilities are considered.


I first became aware of libertarianism more than twenty years ago when I was in high school.  A few years later, at college, I met my first libertarians.  Rand Paul’s announcement that he will be seeking the Presidency of the United States got me thinking about it again.  I’m not going to talk about Rand Paul.  He’s a joke of a politician who stands no chance of being elected president.  But, he is a senator who self-identifies as libertarian which, I think, makes him the most prominent libertarian presidential candidate we’ve ever had.  I find that to be a relief and troubling.  It is both because libertarianism strikes me as one of the dumbest philosophies out there.  So, it’s a relief that we’ve never had a libertarian that was a real contender for the highest office.  But, it is troubling that libertarians seem to be getting more prominent.

I should clarify that I’m talking about political and economic libertarianism, not metaphysical libertarianism.  Metaphysical libertarianism seems silly to me, too, but for completely different reasons.  When it comes to political and economic libertarianism, there are so many obvious things wrong with it and no good arguments in favor of it that I often wonder if its supporters are stupid or cynical, hypocritical liars.  I know that could be a false dilemma, but in the past twenty years, I have yet to find another realistic possibility.

If any libertarians are reading this, they are probably thinking, “Rand Paul isn’t a libertarian.  This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”  That’s a big issue with libertarianism.  The whole philosophy is a classic example of the No True Scotsman fallacy.  Every time someone tries to show what is wrong with a libertarian position, the response is, “Well, that’s not what a true libertarian believes.”  The result is an ever changing vacuousness.  That being said, I’ll do my best to talk about what their belief system seems to be.

At the heart of libertarian philosophy is freedom.  Anything that promotes freedom is good and anything that restricts freedom is bad.  That’s such a weird thing to have as a basis of a philosophy.  Other philosophies have happiness, flourishing, justice and reason as their basis.  While none of them are perfect, they are all a lot better than freedom.  All of those other things can be considered primary goods, but freedom cannot.  At best, it is a contingent good and at worst it is nothing.  What I mean by that is that freedom is only good in that it leads to happiness or flourishing or justice or reason.  If we were all free, but didn’t get anything out of that freedom, why would any of us care?  And if freedom does lead to something else, it is no longer primary.  Once something else becomes primary, it is justifiable to limit freedom to improve the new base.  But, then it is no longer libertarian.

Another thing that libertarians are obsessed with is individualism.  This is another weird one.  I know there is the whole myth of rugged individualism that Americans are so proud of.  And I know that collectivism was the enemy throughout the second half of the 20th century.  But when you look at human nature, one thing we definitely are not is individualistic.  There has never been a group of people who failed to form some kind of society.  Cutting people off from society has always been one of the worst punishments.  Some even consider it a kind of torture.  And there has never been a society where people are just expected to fend for themselves.  People help each other.  Sympathy and empathy are built in.  I know that natural does not equal good, but why would we want to shake off our natural inclinations in this case?  What’s the benefit?  We are happier and healthier when we help others and get help from others, so we should just go with it.

Property is another big thing for libertarians.  This one is a bit more understandable, but they just don’t know when to stop.  The typical libertarian view of property really comes from John Locke.  He said that in the state of nature, all goods were in common.  But, once a person mixes their work with a good, it becomes their property and they have exclusive rights to it.  In the libertarian view, this means that all taxes are equivalent to stealing.  If I worked to earn my money, no one, not even the government, has any right to take it from me.  The real problem here is that it relies on a complete misunderstanding of what money is and how money works.  In a modern economy, the government makes the money.  They put it into circulation and allow people and businesses to use it.  It wasn’t magically created by a person’s hard work.  And it wasn’t made by a bunch of people getting together and agreeing to use shiny coins and green paper as money (money could be made this way, but not for a society as large and complex as we have now).  Given that governments make and distribute the money, they are perfectly justified in taking taxes.

Finally, libertarians hate government and any kind of regulation.  Half of what they say is flat out absurd and the other half is completely divorced from reality.  We don’t need regulation.  If someone makes a bad product and that product hurts people, the market will correct things and put that person out of business.  Aside from the shocking callousness of essentially saying that it’s OK if an unsanitary farmer kills a bunch of people because the market will take care of him, they are ignoring reality.  Companies make bad and dangerous things all the time and the market does nothing.  Look at Exxon, HSBC and RJ Reynolds for a few examples.  And then libertarians ignore the fact that markets are only possible with a government and regulations that ensure an equal playing field.

Believe it or not, I’m not just writing this to bash libertarians.  People as smart as Robert Nozick have espoused libertarian views.  Milton Friedman won a Nobel Prize.  But every time I look at it, I see nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, of value.  I want to know either what I am missing or how such a bad philosophy gets any supporters at all.


I hate anger.  Of all the emotions, it’s my least favorite.  I’d rather feel sad or guilty than angry.  Of course, as a human being, I do feel angry from time to time, but I’m not prone to it.  I think most people who know me know that I’m calm most of the time.  That natural calmness is probably a big part of the reason I hate anger so much.  Of all the emotions, it’s probably the most passionate.  Anger just has a way of sweeping everything away to the point of the angry person losing agency.  When love or grief takes over, two of the other most passionate emotions, agency is retained and can even feel stronger.  I know who I really am when I love and I feel a change in myself when I grieve.  But with anger, I am lost.  It is this lack of agency that makes anger ethically tricky.

I say that anger is ethically tricky, but I do not think that it is wrong.  It is a brute fact.  Commanding someone to not be angry would be about as effective as commanding someone to not be hungry.  In fact, I often think that I could use a little more anger.  But, to get at why, we need to know what anger is.  As I said, everyone has felt angry, but what are we feeling?  Unlike fear, it is not a response to something potential.  It is about something actual or at least something perceived to be actual.  No one gets angry at a person that might cheat.  We get angry at a person who does cheat or who we believe is trying to cheat.  It seems to be violations that make us angry.  Anything from violating a social norm to violating a person’s body can be cause for anger.  There are all kinds of reasons we dislike things, but a feeling of violation seems to be necessary for anger.  That would make anger a defensive emotion.  We feel anger over perceived violations as a way of protecting ourselves, either from the current violation or future violations.

This also helps explain why different people get angry over different things and to different degrees. What counts as a violation is different for different people and in different situations.  Insults are a good example.  They often cause anger, but it is easy to see how the people and situations matter.  Siblings can call each other names with no anger resulting, but say those same things to someone at work and the anger will be swift and obvious.  If an opponent in a tennis match says you’re too weak to hold the racket with one hand, you’ll probably get mad.  If your coach says the same thing, you will not as she is just trying to help.

Anger can be anything from mild annoyance to blind rage.  It all depends on the severity of the violation that causes it.  Forgetting to say, “Thank you,” is going to be considered a minor violation by most people most of the time.  So, the resulting anger will be closer to the mild annoyance end of the spectrum.  Being robbed at gun point is going to be considered a major violation by most people most of the time.  So, the resulting anger will be closer to fury.  At least that’s what it should be.  Not to sound too Aristotelian, the key to being angry ethically is to be angry at the right things and in the right proportions.

But, if anger makes a person lose agency, how do we control it?  How do we make sure to be angry at the right things and in the right proportions?  This seems to be related to outlook and temperament.  When I say that I could use more anger, I think it is because I always try to look at things from different perspectives.  That tends to diffuse anger.  If a server gives me poor service, rather than getting angry, I imagine that he was being monopolized by another customer.  If a cashier overcharges me, I assume there was a problem with the bar code and it was an honest mistake.  The fact that I never assume the waiter is lazy or the cashier was trying to rip me off means I lose a valuable bit of self defense.  It is easier for people to take advantage of me than it should be.  I’m not saying that I should always get angry, but sometimes, I should assume that my own point of view is the best one.  This way, I can hold people accountable for the real violations.

People who have the opposite problem, who get angry too easily, seem to have trouble seeing things from opposing viewpoints.  It seems to come from a kind of selfishness.  Their own point of view is their default standard.  If someone is late to a meeting, it is a violation of an agreement and that is it.  The angry person’s perspective won’t acknowledge traffic jams or car trouble and broken cell phones.  Without the natural inclination to look at things a different way, everything becomes black and white.  Either you are on time or you are late.  Either you are polite or you are rude.  Without the middle ground, occasions for anger, violations, are seen everywhere.  But, anger, when directed at an innocent, is itself a violation.  So it creates a viscous cycle.

The best approach is a little self reflection.  We need to look at ourselves first.  If we are easily angered, it makes sense to make an effort to see things from other perspectives.  If we are rarely angered, we should prioritize our own point of view.  This balance will help create a just environment where fewer unjust things are done and when unjust things do happen, the perpetrators are more likely to be held accountable.


Today, as I do most everyday, I was scrolling through 3 Quarks Daily.  In case you don’t know, it’s an excellent site.  Once a week, on Monday, they have a collection of original essays.  The rest of the week, they are a high quality aggregator.  Instead of the usual headlines, they tend to feature longer works dealing with politics, the arts, philosophy and science.  Today they had a piece from Salon called “The 1 Percent’s White Privilege Con” by Corey Robin.  When I started reading the piece, I thought it was the standard liberal handwringing about the lack of diversity in schools.  I almost stopped reading, but I have a compulsion to finish what I start, so I discovered it was much worse.

The gist of the piece is that since the peak of desegregation things have regressed.  We now have a duty to start desegregation over again.  At least, that’s the most likely point.  He isn’t exactly clear and seems to change his stance throughout the piece.  But, aside from the bad writing, the first red flag for me was a paragraph about Hannah Arendt.  I will quote it in full:

In 1959, Dissent published an article by the German-Jewish émigré philosopher Hannah Arendt. A criticism of desegregation and a defense of states’ rights, “Reflections on Little Rock” was controversial, offensive and wrong-headed in almost every way. But one point—beyond the immediate question of integration, about which she was wrong—Arendt got it right. Why, she wondered, do we “burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve?” It’s an age-old dream, she acknowledged in a reply to her critics, that “one can change the world by educating the children in the spirit of the future.” But doesn’t that dream just shift “the burden of responsibility from the shoulders of adults to those of children”?

Now, it had been a while since I read Arendt’s article, but I didn’t recall anything “offensive” or “wrong-headed” about it, let alone it being those things “in every way.”  So, I pulled my copy of The Portable Hannah Arendt to reread her article.  Then I reread Robin’s piece and what I found is that either he has not actually read Arendt’s article or he completely misunderstood it.  Arendt’s main point was that forced desegregation of schools by the federal government was wrong for three reasons.  The first is that it is morally wrong to force black children into a position where they will be bullied and traumatized.  And it’s immoral to prevent their parents from protecting them.  The second is that it is morally wrong to force children to deal with the problems that adults cannot fix, as Robin noted.  The third is that the basic difference between the North and South in the 1950’s wasn’t that one was segregated and the other wasn’t.  The difference was that in the South, segregation was part of the law.  She argues that the proper thing to do is to make sure everyone has equal protection under the law, not to force people who do not want to interact to interact.

If Robin read Arendt’s article, I would imagine the place where he misunderstood her is when she gets into a theoretical discussion of the differences between the political, social and private realms.  In the political realm, equality is paramount.  But, in the social realm, people choose to segregate themselves all the time, and the government has no business interfering.  “Without discrimination of some sort, society would simply cease to exist and very important possibilities of free association and group formation would disappear.”  If the VFW were forced to allow non-veterans in, they would lose their reason for being.  This discrimination allows a group to exist which benefits its members who have benefitted society.  When she says that society would “cease to exist,” she is saying that a society without discrimination would be no more than a mob.  And in the private realm, “Here we choose those with whom we wish to spend our lives. . . and our choice is guided not by likeness or qualities shared by a group of people – it is not guided, indeed, by any objective standards or rules.”  I can see where this may sound bad, but it is simply saying that the government has to stick to the political arena.  People may be completely wrong in their choice of society and friends, but the government is not there to fix these mistakes.  She no where says that the plight of blacks is anything but bad.  She actually refers to it as the, “original crime in this country’s history,” and believes that all laws that encode segregation are perpetuating that crime.

The other thing that Arendt talks about in her article is the fact that there are other, better places to fight for equality than the schools.  The ones that she is focused on are the right to participate fully in government, from voting to holding office, and the right to marry whomever one wishes (she was talking about inter-racial marriage, but the principals would transfer to gay marriage).  The first violates political equality, which is paramount.  The second violates privacy. “If legislature follows social prejudice, society has become tyrannical.”  These are two ways in which our society was tyrannical, and are therefore more important battle grounds.

I know I’ve been talking at length about Arendt rather than Robin.  I want to make it clear that she was neither offensive nor wrong-headed.  And her arguments are still sound.  Robin is talking about a new wave of forced desegregation when he says, “lobby for better state and federal laws, and more liberal courts, to reintegrate the public schools,” or, “schools could organize workshops to teach students how to lead a mass movement that would divest private schools of federal tax benefits.”  If I’m being generous, this is a failure to learn from history.  Forced desegregation didn’t fix the problems before and it will not fix them now.  Segregated schools are the result of a bad system.  Redlining, voter ID laws and gerrymandering are the causes. You can’t fix the roots by messing with the fruit.  Focusing on desegregation is at best a waste of time and effort.  It is still putting an unfair burden on children.  It is still confusing the private, social and political realms.  Robin and most liberals need to get past their clichés and platitudes to focus on the root causes if any progress is to be made.